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Like most physicians, I tend not to watch medical shows in Movies and on Television; partly because they aren't usually very realistic - the real world seldom has sufficient drama to make good entertainment - and partly because one doesn't normally look for relaxation or entertainment in the same field in which one works. I saw Threshold for the first time recently only because I am a great admirer of Donald Sutherland's considerable talent. In this film, Sutherland is at his best, creating a portrait of a Cardiovascular Surgeon which is so real I could recognize several of the surgeons I know personally. He embodies both their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the most notable attribute he gives the fictitious Dr. Vrain is the total commitment and life absorbtion which a heart surgeon must have, even when it weakens his ability in other facits of life. One of the film's advisors was Dr. Denton Cooley, the pioneering Dallas Surgeon; Sutherland must have studied and worked with him extensively to so perfectly capture the personality and persona. The film follows his lead in making nurses, and their daily routines in the hospital unusally true and realistic also. This film is worth seeing just for the strength of Sutherland's portrayal and the realistic view of the medical world alone.
"Threshold" is a meticulously crafted Canadian drama with several stars in
top form. There's Donald Sutherland as the heart doctor who is warm and
genial, but still keeps an emotional distance from his daily activities.
This is evidenced in the scene where he's talking about the miracles that
he's experienced in his life, and he doesn't mention a single one of his
life-saving operations. He doesn't see himself as a Superman, just an
ordinary man doing his job. He has no ego or God-like persona, he's just
dedicated doctor. He is so phenomenal in this role that I would have to
it's my favorite Donald Sutherland performance, and he's given many great
I also thought this was one of Jeff Goldblum's best performances, right up
there with "The Fly". In "Threshold", he is totally believable as a
34-year-old man who has dedicated probably every inch of free space in his
mind thinking about his exhilirating project for over a decade, possibly
his life. When people scoff at his ideas with vague, juvenile arguments,
begins rambling and rambling about the specific virtues of his experiment
descriptively, passionately, sometimes euphorically that the result is
exciting, like in the incredible scene towards the end between him and the
radio personality; he always totally ignores any childish comments and
straight to the heart of the matter. It's no wonder that when his
seems to work he is suddenly overcome with grandiosity, because he
is his project, totally. Few people ever devote this much of their life
minds to one incredible concept like this, and as a result, he becomes
Mare Winningham is such a priceless jewel in "Threshold" as Sutherland's first artificial heart transplant. She is luminous in every one of her scenes, particularly towards the end. We feel so much sympathy for her character and only want the best for her in the end. She should have been Oscar-nominated along with Sutherland and Goldblum for this. I'll never forget how much I could truly feel her sense of loss and fear after the surgery: "I'm just not the same."
The film obviously raises the issue that many people feel Sutherland and Goldblum are "playing God", and I could be wrong, but that was kind of an impression I got from one scene right after Winningham's surgery when she's still sedated. Sutherland comes to see her and as he's watching her sleep he hears the ominous sound of a helicopter overhead, which we know is the press, but it's almost like a rumble from a God uknown, a private message to Sutherland, at least that's what I imagined his character might be thinking. I'm not sure if it signified an approval of or anger at the operation, but I would guess that in his character's mind it would have been the latter.
The film has a deceptively happy ending. Winningham seems to physically fine in the end, but as she's walking with her parents from the hospital we can see in her eyes that she's lost herself and will probably never be the same. She may in time learn to forget somewhat about her anxieties or put them aside, but it's doubtful. Then of course there's always the possibility she could die the very next day, being that the prosthetic heart is so experimental.
The film has some very beautifully lit scenes, like the first scene that we see Winningham talking to Sutherland on the street at night. It's the almost glowing background lights that make this scene so beautiful, apart from the actors; it has an ethereal feel to it.
I walked away from "Threshold" feeling that I had gained something as a human being from watching it. Not only that, I enjoyed the experience!
My rating: 10/10
I wasn't really looking forward to seeing this film, and only ended up
watching it because it stars Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum, two of
Hollywood's most talented and inimitable actors.
In the end, though, I glad I did watch it - THRESHOLD turned out to be an engaging and absorbing drama. It's a fictional account of the first ever artificial heart transplant, and feels so realistic that you'd never guess it was made two years before the artificial heart became a reality.
Donald Sutherland's first-rate performance is probably the highlight of the movie - when he's this good, you wonder if there's anyone he couldn't act off the screen. A then unknown Jeff Goldblum holds his own admirably as the idealistic young doctor who invented the artificial heart, and the film features some impressive camerawork, most notably the opening tracking shot.
All in all, it helps if you're a Sutherland fan, but it's not essential; this is one of those movies whose relaxed pace, absorbing atmosphere and strong performances will have you hooked right from the start.
"Threshold" is a film with a very clear, heavy presence of reality. The
trade-off of this, of course, is the same as all such realist films -
pacing. This is not something you can watch for big thrills and the
explosive energy of medical trauma. Richard Pearce, and his
cinematographer, Michel Brault, create a world that looks and feels so
human it's almost painful. Each successive scene is like a new
revelation on light and colour and depth of field. Brault gets right
into the action, the movement, the emotional expression. The most
remarkable thing about James Salter's script is how it avoids all those
common medical clichés and falsehoods so often employed in such
stories. The three lead actors - Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, and
Mare Winningham - are observed in an almost documentarian way. They are
people of depth, but not in a way we commonly see in films. The
characters in "Threshold" are not distant, no, but what we get from
them depends on our power of perception. They are laid out in front of
us in much the same way as each person we encounter in life. That's the
great strength of Pearce's direction here (his next film, "Country",
has a similar approach).
"Threshold" is mostly unknown, and not available on DVD. There is one main reason for this - it was a Canadian production, released at a time when such films weren't widely seen, and commonly forgotten soon after. I paid a significant amount to purchase the VHS online. I don't regret this, but the breathtaking cinematography deserves a modern format.
This movie is well-worth watching and I highly recommend it for many of the reasons from others listed here. As another reviewer "tdilts9219" noted, it appears based on the famous Texas heart center in real life. Surprisingly in 1998, the fictional 1981 plot came even closer to a real life situation. In Oxford England, Aug 1998, a renowned heart surgeon Stephen Westaby placed heart replacement pump AB-180 into a young woman Julie Mills to save her life. The AB-180 was invented by George Magovern, a US inventor and has the same key property as the heart replacement in the movie. Add a few of innovations from Jeff Goldblum's fictional inventor, and AB-180 would be a match for the movie. Wait another decade, and it might be another case of sci-fi preceding reality. (source Reader's Digest, April 2000)
As near as I can tell, this movie is based directly on Dr. Denton Cooley's career. Dr. Cooley WAS the first doctor to use an artificial heart in a patient whose heart was unrepairable on the operating table. He was chastised for doing this at the time without approval and so he started his own hospital, The Texas Heart Institute. This movie closely follows the circumstance of that operation that transpired in the 1960's long before the first APPROVED artificial heart was used in Barney Clark in December of 1982. I remember the time well as I had to wait an extra day for Dr. Cooley to operate on me as he was delayed in getting back to Houston after Mr. Clarks operation. This is one movie based on closely related facts.
Donald Sutherland's performance as the highly tauted, respected, and
worshipped Dr Thomas Vrain is amazing and poignant. Dr. Vrain is a much
love father, and well respected heart surgeon that comes to the
that "now is the time" when a young patient faces certain death. We see
good doctor rocket from quiet, hard-working anonymity to overnight success
and along the way, we see his old life and routine crumble and
This movie contains other break-out performances, such as Jeff Goldblum, as determined inventer Aldo Gehring, a man that accomplishes his goals, and achieves the recognition he desires, only to become jaded and bitter. And your heart will break at the wonderful performance given by Mare Winningham, as the young woman who has the most to win or lose, as she places her life in Dr. Vrain's hands.
Along the way we see Dr. Vrain care for his patients with loving kindness in the midst of his hectic schedule, he interacts with friends and family. But as we watch Dr. Vrain become the miracle worker, we get to experience the effect this groundbreaking event will have on him and those in his orbit. Donald Sutherland's portrayal is cool and understated as the the self-assured and talented surgeon that reluctantly steps into medical history.
I wish this film would come out on DVD. Others here have written well about the movie, so I won't add to that. But it's illuminating that 25 years after I first saw it, there are scenes that still stand out vividly in my mind. One of my favorites is when, the night before the surgery while Sutherland is making his final plans, he pauses for a moment in front of the x-ray light box, and spreads his hand out on it. He quietly examines his hand, the hand of a surgeon that will soon cut out a woman's heart and replace it with a machine. Can he really do it? Should he? An amazing moment. Whoever has the rights, please release this on DVD!
Amazingly to me, this film appeared on cable very often when my child was an infant with congenital heart defects. The makeup giving Mare Winningham the look of oxygen deprivation was very realistic and gives the viewer a picture of the "dusky" skin tone of some heart patients. The restraint of the Vrain/Carol relationship was right on, and the peripheral but agonized part of the parent was poignantly depicted by Carol's father. The film is almost a relief from the typical "dramatized" film about illness. Heart difficulties are inherently dramatic to the lay person (perhaps not to doctors, though) and need no melodramatic treatment. The understatement, the lack of statement all serve the subject well. The cold, orderly world of the (urban, state-of-the-art)hospital that contains so much extraordinary work comes across beautifully in this film. I'm glad others appreciate it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the ten years or so before this film's release there was a flurry of
high-profile breakthroughs in cardiovascular surgery. Heart
transplants, bypass surgery, mechanical hearts, animal hearts in human
bodies. Names like DeBakey became household words.
One might imagine this low-budget movie to be a sensationalized cashing in on the popularity of the subject, but it isn't that at all. It's a slow-moving and thoughtful story of a young woman's having an artificial heart implant, the original bionic woman. And it's no small thing. Not to the administrators, not to the inventor, not to the surgeon, and certainly not to the patient.
The surgeon is Donald Southerland and he's already world famous, the kind of guy who strikes awe in others at medical conventions. And Southerland's performance, like those of the other principals, is unimpeachable. He's the kind of guy you want for your surgeon when your time comes -- always relaxed, confident, sympathetic but honest, and eyeball-coagulatingly competent. Marcus Welby without the small-town cornball crap. When he finishes the climactic two-and-a-half hour operation, he goes to his office, props his feet carelessly on a table, sighs, and watches TV. The majority of us would be out getting juiced up or sobbing in a church pew. The best thing about Southerland's character is his lack of arrogance. He's not a narcissist despite the standing ovation. And the actor is able to project this, the kind of self-regard that comes not from pride but from satisfaction at having done a good job and helped someone else in the process. I've seen standing ovations for professionals and the recipients were all visibly moved more than Southerland, who seems surprised. Vincent Scully got such an ovation before his last class at Yale. I never got a standing ovation, but I got several good laughs. Once at a late-night lecture on sociological theory I spoonerized the term "structural-functional." And once at a convention, a stranger approached me with a shy smile and said, "You're (insert my name here), aren't you?" I blushed slightly and admitted to being that personage and asked if he was familiar with my work. "No, I don't know you," he said, "I just read your name tag." The impudent pup. A standing ovation and five dollars will get you a free cafe mocha at Starbuck's.
Where was I? Oh, yes. The movie. Jeff Goldblum is the inventor. And man is he a different type. Where Doctor Southerland avoids publicity and hossanahs from the press, knowing that something could go South at any moment, Goldblum takes eagerly to the airways. He's not an egotist either, but a visionary. You know, the kind of guy who intuits the future and carries on about "new paradigms." Southerland becomes angry and tries unsuccessfully to keep Goldblum quiet. The script has a surgeon ask Goldblum if he is a doctor. "Yes -- umm, biology." The surgeon says contemptuously, "Biology. That explains it. Treat some patients for a while." Unfortunately some MDs do have this attitude. If you have no clinical practice you don't know anything. Which is rather like Arnold Schwarzenegger saying that if you haven't lifted weights you don't know anything.
The patient who receives this plastic/metal contraption is Mare Winningham, who is quite good, and who is exactly right for the part. She's young, but not too young. Pretty, but not heartbreakingly so. Winsome but not pathetic. After the operation, when it is clear that she will recover, she lies in bed scared to death, frightened because if she goes to sleep the heart might stop. What a nice touch, and nothing much is made of it.
That brings us to the aspect of the film which many people will probably find daunting. It's slow. Nobody shouts angrily at anyone. There is no fist fight. There isn't an underground chamber where comatose bodies are suspended from cables and their organs harvested.
The central figure in the drama is the heart itself and we hardly know anything about it. We have no idea how it works. We hardly even SEE it.
We get to see a lot of other surgical-type things though -- angiograms and that sort of stuff, the kind that Linda Blair underwent in the course of "The Exorcist." Interesting details about an operation in which somebody gets an artificial valve. I always wondered how they got that little ring in there and now I have some idea. The sutures in this case are too long and Southerland casually rebukes his scrub nurse with a soft wisecrack, "What do you want me to do, sew it up from the other room?" So there's no blood, no violence, no sex, nobody poisons anyone else or does anyone in a laundry room. Instead of grand opera we're given a small leisurely story of a successful artificial heart implant. The Big Themes we might expect from a script written by a committee of MBAs are only suggested. "Will I be the same?" "The religious people are after me." The extension of those glimmers of doubt or of definition is left up to the viewer.
Recommended -- if you're patient.
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